Government & Politics

Can you help a crowded Kansas prison by shutting part of it down? Republicans say no

Governor addresses prison staff after state declares emergency at El Dorado prison

(FILE VIDEO -- February 2019) Gov. Laura Kelly, with acting Secretary of Corrections Roger Werholtz, addressed the staff at the El Dorado Correctional Facility after declaring an emergency at the prison due to staff shortages and overpopulation.
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(FILE VIDEO -- February 2019) Gov. Laura Kelly, with acting Secretary of Corrections Roger Werholtz, addressed the staff at the El Dorado Correctional Facility after declaring an emergency at the prison due to staff shortages and overpopulation.

Kansas’ largest prison is bursting at the seams with inmates, housing dozens above its maximum capacity. It’s also thinly staffed, with 77 fewer corrections officers than needed.

Gov. Laura Kelly’s administration hatched a plan to help the distressed prison in El Dorado by closing part of it temporarily and paying other prisons to take some of the inmates. Republicans want to stop that from happening.

The high-stakes clash between the Democratic governor’s administration and the GOP-controlled Legislature will determine what strategy Kansas takes to stabilize and improve its troubled prison system. Years of chronic staff shortages and an ever-expanding inmate population have pushed facilities to the breaking point.

The safety of inmates and officers is on the line, as well as millions in taxpayer funding.

“The last thing we want to do is ship people out of state. That’s a headache for us, but there’s just not enough beds in-state to house all the people we need to take care of,” Corrections Secretary Roger Werholtz said in an interview. “So we’re buying time, is what we’re doing.”

The Kansas Department of Corrections had planned to close a part of the prison that houses 256 inmates as it tries to hire additional staff. In the meantime, the state would send those inmates elsewhere.

Over the weekend, lawmakers moved to thwart the idea of partially closing El Dorado Correctional Facility by passing a budget that makes some additional funding contingent on the prison operating at full capacity.

Lawmakers say that pay increases for officers, rather than a partial closure, will prove the best way to help the prison. KDOC supports pay raises but says it will take time to recruit more staff. Even if the raises attract more workers, it takes weeks to get new officers ready to work in the prison, the agency says.

The bill provides $5.5 million to pay jails and other prisons to house inmates, as long as El Dorado is kept full. That’s enough money to pay other facilities to house about 200 inmates for a year.

Kelly will now have to decide how to respond. A line-item veto of the restriction would eliminate the $5.5 million.

The budget includes another $10.1 million that can be used to house inmates outside state prisons. But that funding requires approval from the State Finance Council, a body made up of legislative leaders and the governor. Kelly chairs the panel but Republicans hold a majority.

As of Tuesday, El Dorado was home to 43 more inmates than its operating capacity of 1,955. There’s nowhere else to put them right now because Kansas prisons as a whole are more than 100 inmates above capacity.

At the same time, 77 correctional officer positions at El Dorado are vacant. Statewide, 338 more officers are needed to fully staff Kansas prisons.

Kelly declared a state of emergency at the El Dorado prison in February. The declaration allows staff to work mandatory overtime, with 12- or even 16-hour shifts becoming a regular part of life for officers.

Last week, Kelly requested more than $30 million more for prisons. Over the weekend, lawmakers approved a budget that provides a boost of about $35 million, with most of it under the control of the council. The additional dollars will largely go toward housing inmates elsewhere, raising staff pay and treating inmates for Hepatitis C.

Republicans say they’re requiring State Finance Council approval because Kelly made her funding request at the last minute and more oversight is needed.

“That skips a huge part of the legislative process,” Rep. J.R. Claeys, R-Salina, said.

Multiple committees didn’t have time to consider the request or hold hearings where lawmakers could hear from Werholtz about the need for the additional funding. That included the plan to close part of El Dorado.

“That never happened. There wasn’t a single public hearing where the secretary of corrections stood up before any legislative group in a public meeting and spoke about these,” Claeys said.

Lawmakers adjourned for the year on Sunday after beginning their wrap-up session Wednesday. They finished the session in fewer than 80 days instead of the typical 90 days.

Sen. Carolyn McGinn, a Sedgwick Republican who chairs the Senate’s budget committee, said the thinking of lawmakers was to provide some of the funding now “to get things started, and then come back and report to the finance council.”

“I think it was just more of the Legislature would just like to have a little bit more oversight on this money because there was so much that was put in late,” McGinn said.

Werholtz counters that the problems facing the prisons are well known. In a series of briefings for lawmakers earlier this year, he laid out in graphic detail what officers face on the job and released photos of bloodied officers after inmate attacks. He also provided new details about uprisings at Kansas prisons in 2017, saying they were worse than the public previously knew.

Werholtz said he has also met privately with multiple groups of lawmakers to brief them.

“I’ve seen some of those comments,” Werholtz said of lawmaker complaints that KDOC is asking for the money at the last moment. “I’ve just got to say, I don’t understand them.”

The budget also includes $2.5 million for pay raises for workers at El Dorado. Officers will receive a 15.9 percent increase and other workers who regularly encounter inmates will receive a 5 percent raise.

That funding will not be controlled by the State Finance Council, but another $9.1 million for pay raises at other prisons will fall under council control.

Werholtz fears the possibility the council could approve raises for some facilities, but not for others.

“I’m already getting emails from staff, especially staff that aren’t from El Dorado, saying ‘what does this mean for us? Are we getting screwed over again?’” Werholtz said. “It’s just kind of a morale-buster for them.”

Over the next 10 years, the state’s prison population is forecast to grow by more than 2,000 inmates, according to the Kansas Sentencing Commission. That’s an increase of nearly 21 percent.

Right now, Kansas prisons hold more than 10,000 inmates. By 2028, that’s expected to rise to 12,000.

Werholtz has said Kansas will either need to increase capacity or lower the number of inmates. The state is already taking some steps along the margins.

A major rebuilding of the prison in Lansing is underway. But the project will add only about 25 beds when it’s completed. KDOC also wants to begin housing some female inmates at the Kansas Juvenile Correctional Complex.

Legislation that could keep people out of prison didn’t pass this year. One plan that received attention would have raised the minimum amount of criminal theft or damage that can be considered a felony from $1,000 to $1,500.

But lawmakers do plan to form a commission to study criminal justice reform.

“It could potentially be a really good start of the conversation for next session,” said Lauren Bonds, interim director of the ACLU of Kansas.

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Jonathan Shorman covers Kansas politics and the Legislature for The Wichita Eagle and The Kansas City Star. He’s been covering politics for six years, first in Missouri and now in Kansas. He holds a journalism degree from the University of Kansas.